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Issue 31

Representin' What?

Black popular culture, image politics, and the death of Tupac Shakur

BY Robin D. G. Kelley and Phillip Brian Harper in Opinion | 11 NOV 96

Phillip Brian Harper: Let's begin by talking about the murder of the rapper Tupac Shakur, since that's the issue that sparked this conversation. Much of the media response to his death has suggested that Tupac felt it necessary to replicate his depictions of a violent black urban street life in his own reality. How do you feel about that?

Robin D. G. Kelley: I think that the dominant position - and certainly the media has picked up on this - is that Tupac had a death-wish and that he was on his way out, almost committing suicide. For instance, Vanessa Williams said about Tupac's death, in a very cold-blooded way, 'you reap what you sow'. The unfortunate thing about this response is that it characterises the whole of gangsta rap as a sort of death-wish genre, when Tupac was just one individual. You know, people involved in other musical forms have also developed this kind of culture - a culture within which they are seen as martyrs - and this is true even within progressive or left-wing cultural movements. We could say the same thing about James Dean, for example. Of course, the irony of this situation is that if you don't use Tupac's death to deal with the larger issue of urban violence, then another important question might get wiped off the table: why is it that people manifest such callousness at the death of a individual artist who is a black man? Because they expect a black man to die from gunshot wounds anyway. The reaction to Eazy-E's death was completely different, for example.

That's very true. My feelings about Eazy-E's death are very complicated. For one thing, it seemed to me only the latest in a series of deaths of black men from AIDS-related causes, which when they occur seem always to be treated as the first such incident, and thus temporarily galvanise activism and attention. On the other hand, in the case of Eazy-E it seemed that whatever activity occurred because of his death was mitigated by his very uneasy relationship to hip-hop by the time he died. That relationship was so conflicted - and Eazy-E himself was so regularly portrayed as an outsider by people like Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dog, who were in ascendancy at that point - that any significance that we were supposed to glean from his death seemed already to have been lost. The fact that he had AIDS and was perceived to have been exiled from the hip-hop community dovetailed with a really suspect sexual politics in the culture. You know, a lot of the rhetoric - both verbal and visual - about Eazy-E's relationship to others within gangsta rap was profoundly homophobic. Deploying homophobia is a standard way of raising questions about a man's relationship to his supposed community, but the conjunction of that rhetoric with the AIDS-related death made this particular instance especially problematic. Raising those questions undercut what should be the principal messages deriving from any AIDS-related death - i.e., how to stay uninfected, the ongoing demands of proper attention to and care for those who are infected, and the need for further research on the syndrome.

It's interesting how much silence and how little mobilisation there was around Eazy-E's death, other than the standard advice to use a condom and that sort of thing. On the contrary, Tupac's death developed into a debate about what to do about gangsta rap.

Yes, that's a good point. Both responses seem to me to be unfortunate. On the one hand, the response to Eazy-E's death was sort of platitudinous: you had people from all different contexts, and certainly from the hip-hop community, getting on the air and saying things like, 'Well, this just goes to show, it can happen to anyone' - which is easy to say, and true in some senses, but it isn't really saying very much. After all, it's not really the case that HIV infection can happen to anyone just walking down the street! There are certain behaviours that are entailed in becoming infected, and certain practices that can prevent infection. Not to detail these facts means providing a generic response that, while it is good-hearted and well-meaning, is not particularly effective. On the other hand, as you are suggesting, the response to Tupac's death has been very specific: 'Oh, let's look at what this means about gangsta rap in particular.' One of the first responses to Tupac's death that I saw was by Jon Pareles, in the New York Times. Among other things, Pareles said that, given his East Coast roots and his West Coast associations, Tupac could have represented a sort of alliance and the forging of some type of truce between the rival factions in hip-hop. Now, this is to some degree an oversimplification already, but even if it weren't, the question that I would want to raise is: why must Tupac as an individual bear that responsibility, as though gangsta rap is isolated from all other social contexts?

Yes... absolutely. The tragedy with Eazy-E's death is that an opportunity to really mobilise around AIDS as a killer of black people was passed up. With Tupac's death, it was easy to say that we really need to deal with firearms and gang violence. But the violence that affected Tupac was at a level that doesn't reflect the major problems in black communities today. The fact is that AIDS is a killer; so are crack cocaine, heroin (which is on the rise) and alcohol, but people don't see their significance.

Something that disturbed me about Pareles' piece as well as other pieces I've read is that they really emphasise Tupac's background - not just his mother's being in the Black Panther Party, but the fact that he was an extremely bright student with great potential, who went to the Baltimore School of Performing Arts, etc., etc., and suggest that all of that just sort of fell apart.

That disturbed me too. One peculiar implication of those pieces is that Tupac wasn't actually achieving that potential through his hip-hop work. But they also show up the difference between responses to the death of someone like Tupac, who had been identified as having great potential, and responses to the deaths of ordinary people outside the spotlight. You know, I have a feeling that the symbolic function of black people generally - and of the black male figure in particular - has intensified over the past decade, and that this intensification is related to the problems associated with treating individuals like Tupac as exceptional.

For example, there's been a lot of discussion in the last couple of months about the relative prominence of black men in current fashion advertising. One of the observations that's been made several times is the way these representations propose black men as having the physical body par excellence. This suggests to me that the vocabulary of exceptionalism that is so often used in the context of professional sports is now crossing over into the broader realm of the entertainment industry. I mean, I see real contradictions in this discourse of exceptionalism. While Eazy-E's death tells us that this bad thing, AIDS, could happen to you, the sports and entertainment media are saying that this good thing, celebrity stardom, probably won't. There seem to me to be some hidden significances in that conflicting message that have to do with the very logic of exceptionalism as it's played out in the culture. And I really think it informs the meaning of these responses to Tupac and others.

Let's go back to what you were saying earlier about Tupac's background. What do you make of the repeated references to his mother's membership in the Black Panther Party, and to the late 60s-early 70s moment that has become so mythic?

That is a highly contested arena among a number of black activists and intellectuals I've talked to. On the one hand, some people want to say that Afeni Shakur, Tupac's mother, grew up in a context of struggle, so why wasn't Tupac a revolutionary? Why wasn't he raised to be at least progressive? That isn't to say that there aren't aspects of his music that are anti-capitalist and anti-racist, but they're not the dominant themes; the dominant theme is 'thug life' - he was very clear about that. And there's another school of thought that says, well, of course that was Tupac's subject - he grew up in a culture of violence. His mother was incarcerated when she was pregnant with him; she had a turn for the worse, like a lot of members of the Black Panther Party. This gets taken as evidence that the whole party somehow went wrong, so Tupac's life becomes an inscription of the history of 60s politics and its supposed failure, which is amazing to me! Meanwhile, there's very little discussion about Afeni Shakur's precise role in the Party, and what exactly Tupac's life was like, because it's not considered important, and besides, most of us don't really know.

Given what we've been saying here about the symbolic character that black men's lives have taken on, I guess it's inevitable that we might want to think about the media response to Tupac's death and how it differed from the way the O.J. Simpson case has functioned in the media... Because I think O.J. Simpson was taken as symbolic of something, but I'm not sure of what!

That's really interesting, because, you know, I work so much in a context of doing battle with white men who feel that they're under siege...

Yes! Don't we both!

...and if there's any symbolic significance in the O.J. Simpson case, it's that he's been seen as the embodiment of black men under siege, so that whatever incriminating evidence there might have been just gets wiped out, because the whole point is to defend a black man. I was reading various website memorials to Tupac, and noted the viciousness with which people defended Tupac against charges of any crime! You have people writing in about Tupac's having been charged with sodomy and rape saying, 'yeah, that was some groupie who was responsible for his being in prison', and claiming that the charges were ridiculous. So this woman, the victim, is turned into the culprit participating in the larger process of demonising the black man. O.J. in some ways embodies the same dynamic.

I think that's absolutely right, and it indicates the different uses to which this symbolic significance of the black male has been put. I mean, it isn't as if O.J. Simpson was exactly representative of black men in general prior to his trial, but something about his having entered into crisis seemed to make him more so. I wouldn't want to buy into the suspicions about O.J.'s relationship to blackness - or more bluntly, to white women - that's not my point here. It's more that this relationship changed dramatically after Nicole's murder, as though his situation was suddenly comparable to one that might crop up in any other African-American community across the country. And this, of course, is another manifestation of the de-individualisation that you pointed out in response to Tupac's death, which, in O.J.'s case, had the effect of precluding the possibility that he was guilty, which I'm not sure that we want to do! Not if we're interested in any semblance of justice.

I guess Tupac really did stand for the average experience, as the ghetto youth who did good, but this made for a contradiction. When Tupac had trouble with the police - which often constituted clear day-to-day police brutality that he had to confront - some people felt it must have somehow been his fault, because of his openly embracing 'thug life'. It was a very complicated stance to take: on the one hand, you look like you're trying to be a criminal the best way you know how, but on the other hand, you know you're a victim of police brutality!

Exactly! And those two things are not necessarily mutually exclusive! This serves as another reminder that black people lack the luxury of just being ordinary human beings, with faults and defects - possibly criminal ones - along with virtues and high moral characteristics, just like any other group of persons. As Judith Butler pointed out in her analysis of the Rodney King case, regardless of whether he had done anything illegal or not, the jurors perceived that a black man stopped by the police was by definition about to perform some illegal activity, in which case the beating was justified, since you could never know when that performance would actually happen, and 'better safe than sorry'. Then, of course, the outrage at the beating was mitigated when we were told about King's really very minor violations of the law. I mean the fact that Rodney King is cited for drunk driving or whatever serves in the popular court to confirm his innate criminality, which the police always suggested they were responding to in the first place.

Yeah. I mean, the mere fact that Rodney King's being stopped for drunk driving is news! As you suggested, the logic really becomes that of the self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby in order to justify certain forms of repression, the discourse practically invests black bodies with a criminal gene that inflects every single action they perform. Even when the case is one of straight police violation, as it was in at least one instance with Tupac, it gets contextualised as the product of his own criminal behaviour. More generally, if you look at the issue of violence at rap concerts, the music is portrayed in the media as contributing to the violence; and yet you have more people injured and dead at a Michael Jackson concert or at the Altamont concert at the turn of the 70s, but those events aren't projected in that way through the media. Similarly, Tupac, in death or in life, doesn't get depicted like other figures - John Lennon, for instance.

That's right. Somehow I doubt very seriously that we're going to have a little area of Central Park marked off as a memorial to Tupac Shakur. What you just said reminds me of an ongoing truth, which we can tend to forget, i.e., the continuing significance of functioning as a 'marked' subject in this society. If you take the casualties that are associated with Altamont, or the mosh pit at any alternative or punk concert, they are seen as indicative of a genericised youth culture - it's a culture which can be seen as generic only because it's white to begin with. The media will never conceive of a youth culture in black contexts, since it will always be taken as signifying not youth situations, but rather, specifically black situations, as though those weren't always already criss-crossed by other factors, including socio-economic class status, gender, and geographical specificity. And it amazes me, the extent to which this continues to be an issue. I mean, we don't see the problems of Sean Penn, or Charlie Sheen, or Shannen Doherty presented to us as signifying fundamental problems in a culture with which they are associated.

Yeah, and as you suggested before, they don't represent the race. It's an old cliché that still remains true: When anything happens to any black person, there are repercussions for all of us, no matter how much we try to disassociate. Or we're compelled to explain what has happened. I mean, I don't know how many white people have come up to me and said, 'So, could you explain to me Tupac's death?' And my first response is, 'Well, I wasn't really there. I read about it in the newspaper'.

An event like Tupac's death certainly serves as a sort of reality-check for those of us in the academy. There now is a tiny little subset of people within academia who are finally starting to look at the racialised character of whiteness, but by and large, the culture still does not recognise whiteness as a racialised subjectivity. And even when it does, it doesn't necessarily recognise that its function differs from a 'minority' subjectivity.

The other thing you realise when talking about rap in the academy is that sometimes I think a lot of people expect too much from the artists. Tupac's music plays a fundamental role in the development of some of my students; they're grappling with really hard political questions, and actually cite Tupac as a source. I have to stop and remind myself that the rappers are writing lyrics at 17 and 18 years old, and they really don't have a very deep understanding of how things work. It's great in terms of gaining a particular insight, but it's not tantamount to the type of intellectual sources that we're accustomed to - and I'm not just talking about the form, I'm talking about the content. I think it's key to remember that, so we don't have these rappers carrying so much weight for us. I mean, I remember what I was thinking about at 17 - I was like, where's the party?

That reminds me of the commentary on Tupac's death by a couple of members of The Last Poets. When asked to characterise some differences between their own work and that of contemporary rappers, these older artists indicated that they consciously felt themselves to be connected to and involved in specific social movements. Of course, compared to the Last Poets' generation, current hip-hop is massively popular in commercial terms, and that has to be taken into account. Did that come into the history you wrote of the LA hip-hop scene?

Well, that was a very personal piece to me, and writing about the early stuff really reminded me of what the scene was like and how much it had changed over time. You know, the founders of the LA rap scene embraced a completely different style before gangsta rap took off. Dr. Dre used to walk around with lipstick and long earrings and eye shadow, a 70s style that came straight out of gay clubs. If there is a lesson, it's how much the marketplace really, honestly shapes the development of certain kinds of trends.

Robin D.G. Kelley and Phillip Brian Harper are colleagues at New York University, where they teach in the departments of History and English, respectively. Kelley is the author, most recently, of Race Rebels: Culture, Politics and the Black Working Class, 1994. Harper's latest book is Are We Not Men? Masculine Anxiety and the Problem of African-American Identity, 1996.